The 2012 MTV Video Music Awards moved into the 20,000-capacity Staples Center in Los Angeles this September where the design team took full advantage of the multi-purpose arena’s cavernous space. The VMAs show, which for the two previous years had been hosted at the 7,100-seat Nokia Theatre, always had a distinctive look, and this year’s edition was no exception.
Production designer Florian Wieder, lighting designer Tom Kenny and others on the design team — executive producer Jesse Ignjatovic (with Den of Thieves); co-executive producer Lee Lodge (who created much of the video content); and director Hamish Hamilton — collaborated on angular scenic elements for the stages and VIP seating areas.
The show, featuring performances by acts including One Direction, Alicia Keys, Taylor Swift, Pink, Lil Wayne, Green Day, Rihanna, Frank Ocean and Katie Perry, used lighting and projection to great effect on the white stretch fabric covering the angular scenic elements.
“This year at the Staples Center, we were working in a larger arena,” says Wieder. “The set had to go together with the venue, which already has such a strong look. I have done so many arena shows in the past; creating a set for an event like this in an arena is a challenge, especially in terms of sightlines, because we have a huge audience. I also always try to make it different compared to previous years. We decided to go with a multi-stage concept, which means that it’s not like a concert; where performances just take place on one or two stages at the end of the room. We had a lot of different performance areas. I wanted to bring it much closer to the audience.”
Even though the Staples venue is larger, the space on the floor is very limited. To make it work for the VMAs, Wieder found it more difficult to lay out the stage. “There needs to be a big, main stage, but then there’s not that much floor space left,” Wieder says.
“On a show like this, you need more than one stage because it’s a logistical thing; you can’t move if everything takes place at the main stage. It’s hard in terms of turnaround and load-ins for all the band gear. So, you need a couple more stages. There also needs to be space left for the audience on the floor. I honestly didn’t know where to place all of this stuff. It became tighter and tighter and tighter. The other thing is that the Staples Center is a huge bowl. It’s very, very high and also, the relation of the set and the venue itself needs to be in the right proportion or the set looks completely lost; that’s the reason why it was so important that the main stage be big enough in terms of scale. On the other hand, you have to take care to integrate proper backgrounds, which needs to be more related to the presenters.”
“The biggest challenge is that when you design a set like this, especially for TV, of course it needs to work for the audience in the room and it needs to be impressive,” Wieder adds. “On the other hand, it also needs to work in all of the close-ups, since a very important part of the show is the awards ceremony. So, the presenter areas where people get their awards needs to definitely to work on TV as well. It’s not only design, it’s something completely different compared to other live shows or concerts where it’s more about how things can be staged. We do have to balance for all of the performances and the awards ceremony. It’s all about close-ups and proper backgrounds.”
One of the highlights that Wieder likes to point out was the DJ area for the VMA house DJ Calvin Harris to perform. “We had another structure — based on the same shape of the main stage, but it was more compact — that was placed on a lifting platform right in the middle of the room,” explains Wieder. “This was really exciting, it was like a diamond in the middle of the room. Even if it created some sightline issues, it was a great set piece.”
The white set elements and the large physical elements on the main stage consisted of an aluminum structure wrapped in a white stretch material. Tait handled the set construction, with Atomic Scenery serving as a subcontractor; All Access Staging & Productions provided the set deck structure; Scenic Express provided the DJ booth, set deck construction and set elements; and Global Enterprises also provided set elements.
Wieder, marking his third VMAs, worked closely with the five-time VMA LD Kenny. Both wanted to ensure that the production smoothly integrated the lighting and production design. “I love working with Tom; we’re actually working on a lot of shows together,” says Wieder. “What I really like about Tom is that he’s one of the creative guys; it’s not all based on technical stuff. Of course, he needs to know all of the equipment, but when we start working on a project like this, it’s pretty abstract. It’s more about the idea. When I showed him this design for the first time, he wanted to expand all of the angles. He really cares about the architecture; always thinking of how he can support the set and not ignore it. He carefully looks at what I am doing, and then his lighting supports me. His lighting makes everything look like an extension of the physical room. There were all of these angled surfaces with my set. He did pretty much the same with lighting, so it looked like an extension of the set.”
Lighting Up the Room
For Kenny, the move to the Staples Center made him feel right at home. “It goes right into where I come from; I come from big arena and stadium rock shows,” he says. “I knew that we would have to make a statement. We always try to be a little out of the box; very left-of-field; not conservative. Florian and myself have worked well together; both of us think similarly. He is extremely futuristic in his look, and minimal. I am also futuristic and wanted to create massive looks because it was in a huge arena. We were also supported by fabulous video content, the VMAs really spend a lot of time to make everything look very unique.”
Kenny’s approach to the production is to balance the needs of the live acts with those of the television team. “They know that I come from a point of view of live performance-type lighting,” says Kenny. “Just from all of my experiences of working with bands and performers, I basically come from show biz, whereas the majority of people come from TV. It’s a very different and unique way of looking at things. Everyone is really very passionate about every artist and everything that we do for this show.”
For Kenny, the VMAs are a live experience that just happens to be televised. “The very fact that Taylor Swift, Pink, Alicia Keys, Rihanna, Green Day, etc; are in the room makes it a live experience anyway, so I just complement that,” says Kenny. “The VMAs have got its own vibe, and the design supports that. With the great content that we have and the great scenic design that Florian gives me; I’m not worried about how it’s going. Everybody who works on the core team — including the lighting team, the video team, the audio team and the scenic team, are very passionate about what we do.”
When it comes to choosing his fixtures, Kenny notes, “I always use different lighting; I don’t use normal type of lighting for shows. I am always constantly looking for different products. It might not be a fixture that you would normally use on a TV show, but this category, ‘TV show,’ is ancient history. Everybody’s got a cell phone now; everybody’s got an iPad or an iPhone, and if it looks good on that, it’s going to look good on the television. Everybody’s very visual now. My solution is to think from the heart. I think of it also from the artist’s point of view — if you’re walking out on the VMA stage, it’s such a big honor, and the Staples Center has had some fabulous shows in there. It’s an honor to be performing in there. So I try and help them with that and make them look as iconic and fabulous as they can.”
New Gear, New Looks
Kenny’s rig for the VMAs included 250 Clay Paky Sharpys and 50 of the new GLP impression X4s. “It’s always a policy of mine to try out new technology and styles of lighting on the VMAs, and every year, we have a standalone product that catches the eye,” says Kenny, noting that the show served as a “fabulous place” to show off the “stylish” X4s.
“This year, I needed a sleek white fixture to complement Florian’s concept, and I knew the white finish of the X4s would fit the part perfectly. We were also fortunate to get six of the new [Vari*Lite] VL3515s, which we used to keylight DJ Calvin Harris on his very futuristic DJ platform, which Florian designed. It was stunning.
“The [Lycian] M2 followspots are beautiful, and I used a number of the Robe 1200s and [Philips Color Kinetic] TRX ColorBlasts, which are great.” Video Equipment Rentals (VER) supplied the lighting equipment.
Kenny prides himself on creating the right lighting look for a particular act. “The look for Green Day was easy; I felt I really understood them,” says Kenny. He lit them simply with Upstaging Headlite W LED fixtures. “I thought that we needed something colder and more desolate for Green Day, and the Headlites have a great light to them.”
To light Frank Ocean, by contrast, Kenny sought “an extremely unusual look — only one followspot and six wash lights along with a fire pit and some red gel. Every look is very significant to me; I like them all.”
A Shared Palette
Kenny also worked closely with co-executive producer Lodge, who handled the video content. “We always talk with each other before he starts with the content,” Kenny says. “We will discuss his palette, and my team and I will complement that. Basically, we never try to act against the content.
“I come from a world of color, and Lee will talk with me about the color palette,” Kenny continues. “This year, it was very bright pinks and purples, so we complemented that. We have a good conversation and it always works out. Lee’s video content is very unique and artistic.”
XL Video supplied the LED video gear. Kenny also gives credit to JR Cassidy, the rigger from Kish; and to the head gaffer Mike Grimes. “They realized this production in their hard work and in their planning.”
Kenny appreciates the opportunity that the VMAs provide, giving him an interesting canvas for him to paint with light. “The VMAs always try something different,” he notes. “MTV has been the new kids on the block for 30 years, and every single band is on the top of their game when they go there.”
The 2012 MTV Video Music Awards
Executive Producer: Jesse Ignjatovic/Den of Thieves
Co-Executive Producer: Lee Lodge
Production Designer: Florian Wieder
Lighting Designer: Tom Kenny
Art Director: Tamlyn Wright
Assistant Art Director: Resa Deverich
Staging Producer: Gary Lanvy
Staging Supervisor: Joe Barry
Rigging Supervision: JR Cassidy/Kish Rigging
Video Programmer: Jason Rudolph
Lighting Directors: Michael Appel, Dirk Op’t Eynde, Ronnie Skopac
Head Gaffer: Michael Grimes
Gaffers: John Ellar, Bryan Klunder
Technician: Jason Livingston
Automation: Tait Towers
Set Construction: Tait, Atomic Scenery
DJ Booth/Deck: Scenic Express
Set Deck Structure: All Access Staging & Productions
Act Set Elements: Scenic Express & Global Enterprises
Exterior Staging Elements: Gallagher Staging & Productions
Video Co: XL Video
Lighting Co: VER
4 MA Lighting grandMA 2
11 grandMA NPUs
250 Clay Paky Sharpys
50 GLP impression X4s
6 Philips Vari-Lite VL3515 fixtures
120 Vari-Lite VL3500 Wash FX fixtures
80 Vari-Lite VL3000 Spots
170 Martin Atomic 3000 Strobes
80 Quasar 15kW Strobes
*Partial list. The lighting rig also included Vari*Lite VL3500 Spots, VLX fixtures, Robe 1200 fixtures, Moonflowers, Syncrolite SXL 7kW Xenon Skylights, Upstaging LED Headlites and Lycian M2 Followspots, with video fed and cued by Green Hippo Hippotizers and an MA Lighting grandMA Lite.
For more photos, please go to http://plsn.me/VMA2012online